‘You know what I’d wish for right now? A fifty pound note on the floor.’ – Group of teens, ascending Nevis.
I’d vowed to give myself a day off the bicycle, come what may. Scaling Britain’s highest mountain then may not seem like a choice destination for gentle perambulation, but I awake excited and apprehensive.
Ben, my Swiss cycling companion found along the road to Fort William, awakes nearby and together we scour a map. He’s unsure of his next destination, ‘somewhere to the west, I think. Or maybe south!’ I’m pleased just to be able to see a map. Following roads and local directions has left me with a different cartographic take on the terrain. Five miles of steep hills and sweeping views constitute more space in my mind than thirty miles on a flat and dull track. The Hebridean islands I’ve travelled seem so close to each other now, and it’s remarkable how different the landscapes and seas appear on each one. Months could be spent exploring them. One might still be no closer to making sense of their captivating mystery and tranquillity.
Glen Nevis is the flat valley that sits beneath the mountain, lush with forests and streams. We’d camped just by a picnic area along one walking path. Leaving Ben, I follow the road further into the Glen, towards another small forest with a – groan – Braveheart car park, and a little ahead, beyond the caravan parks and car parks, a tourist visitor centre.
I have to wade through five hundred European tourists to get inside the centre, where a small exhibition urges climbing the mountain with a map, waterproof jacket, climbing boats, a gallon of water, food rations for three weeks, an oversized hiking staff and other essentials. I’m unsure how my bike shoes will manage the rocks. With a dirty dinner shirt and DIY shorts, and a bag full of dried trail mix and a cheese baguette I prepared some days ago, I feel fully prepared to scale this gentle giant.
The path is truly packed with tourists. A very long line of Dutch teenage boys leads the procession, a scout group with their own flags and chants. In the distance, their outlines remind me of a small medieval army trumping over the border into a neighbour’s land to be slayed over some trifling dispute. Nederland, Nederland! Behind them are pairings of middle-aged tourists in sensible shoes and backpacks. Everyone seems to be carrying large hiking poles but no-one’s sure how to apply them to the tricky tread.
A group of geezers dash down the hill as we each struggle up, the sloping path from the car park quickly giving way to a steep and narrow rocky path.
‘Do you pull the short straw with that bag mate?’
‘What you got in it, beers for the top?’
‘Ah, I wish!’
The downside of having no fixed abode is moments like these, where I have to take my laptop and chargers up with me or face the miserable consequences of their unlikely disappearance. On those bloody sharp rocks, crumbling under the tread, and up interminable steep ascents, how I wish for a pair of sensible shoes and a backpack!
The path winds and zigzags up. It’s a well-established route nicknamed the ‘tourist path’, and there are plenty of tourists out today filling it in every direction like a procession of possessed ants. It’s a hot and clear day, ideal weather, but it’s a tough and steep walk. These legs, happy to push away at pedals for all the hours a day can supply, quickly struggle and ache on the rocks.
The track get steeper, often requiring a hand to keep one’s balance on the dizzingly narrow track. A sense of camaraderie develops among the walkers. Like cyclists on the road, we each say hi and hullo to our fellow walkers. I meet one Chinese-British family who have also dared to scale Ben Nevis without even an iota of prior experience or preparation. I meet European tourists as well as Scottish and English visitors of all ages. This first tough part gives way to a flatter plateau with nice enough views of Glen Nevis. After that, it goes back to bloody steep, the tough track interrupted by the odd feature like a wooden bridge or a waterfall. But my, the views are astonishing.
Nearly two months of travel have made me very fit. It’s still a strange discovery to accidentally handle my legs or arms whilst applying some cream for a midge bite and feeling how thick and weighty they’ve become. I’ve always been pretty weedy. I find myself overtaking most people up the trail even with this heavy bag, just as I pass the occasional cyclist on the road. In recent days I’ve been covering miles at faster and faster speeds, even when not planning to. If this cycling lifestyle can transform me, it’ll surely transform you.
Three women I talk to eschew optimism. It’s true, after some hours it can feel like one is getting to the top. The path zigzags around the head of Ben Nevis, and the thick fog at the top obscures the view ahead. The final pull is particularly steep and the large rocks often unsteady and loose. Small piles of rocks start to line the route, mystic tributes to the strength of a dormant god. Flutters of despair and fatigue start to flicker within. Stop here? How much bloody further?
The mountain becomes like a long cycle route on an unknown path. Like that ride in and out of Lochinver, following little more than a desire to explore, to prod a little further. Once exhaustion kicks in, the body begins to feel separate from the mind. It aches, it hungers, it thirsts, it needs to piss – yes, but generally these needs can be met. It’s the mind that often needs taming. Its exhaustion expresses itself as blind panic and anxiety. I don’t think I can do it. Why does this happen to me? I wish I could give up, but there’s nothing here to stop for.
It can get bleak. But I find that these moments of despair, like frustration, are opportunities for discovering and exercising inner strength. One has to master that frenzied mind. You can do it. It’s ok, you’ll find a way. Why give up when you’ve come so far. It’s more lonely, and therefore more powerful, up on a remote single-track path up a mountain, but I’m reminded of a similar effect here.
A certain threshold is crossed and the temperature starts to drop rapidly. Great frozen pools of ice line the path, and eventually it disappears. A frozen field of ice and snow stands in the way. I make the shadows of walkers in the distance – the numbers have halved compared to those I saw at the foot of Ben Nevis – and I follow them, clambering across the snow. Eventually the outline of a ruined building appears, the remains of an old observatory that became a B&B a century back. I’m at the top.
It’s taken three and a half hours and it’s been a bloody tough hike. Croughpatrick in County Mayo, Ireland, is the only other place I’ve climbed up, a holy mountain out in the hills nearby the trinkets and papal car-parks of Knock. Nevis can’t trump it for the sheer mystery of that mountain, the tales of suffering locals walking up barefoot. The sheer amount of visitors at the top of Nevis too dispels any kind of magic. Still, it feels ruddy great being up here. Crows skulk across more distant crags off the beaten track, looking mischievously at this bizarre line of human beings struggling up and down this bleak and jagged spur in the sky. The fog has cleared, securing views of the surrounding mountains and sea. It only does this ten days a year. It’s quite wondrous.
Drink in the view, you’ve come this far. By one precipice a cheery English couple take my photo. We share our tales. Their eyes widen when I state a plan to see Mull and Iona. ‘Ah! You must go to Fidden beach, by Fionnphort. It’s a secret beach, like no other. There was no one there…’
The Highlands are full of great peaks. There’s various Ben Mores, or Ben Macdhui, or Ben Lawers. Traverse them, a similar height, but without the crowds. But I’m here to fulfil something, to tick a box, and so are most here. As I treat myself to the aged cheddar and leaves of my baguette, three lads from the Home Counties sit by me.
‘Two hours thirty three!’
[Checks phone]. ‘Fucking hell, Santander have rejected my mortgage.’
A conversation about personal finances, speeds and other forms of penis measurement ensues. I look around. Some are here sincerely, striving to discover some inner fortitude or establish a personal achievement. Others I meet are wearing charity t-shirts, three peaks or four peaks, as you wish. I ask one group about their cause. They struggle to name it or explain it, a charity in Sri Lanka for the homeless. It’s so removed from their way of life or interests. Hunger and homelessness persist and grow to a devastating extent in Britain. But that’s not the point. It’s about colleagues, ex-school mates or other associations of teenage lads in middle-aged bodies getting together and enjoying themselves. Those team poses, all alacrity and big grins by the hired minibus, they’ll be cherished. And hey, that’s fair enough. If it raises money for some distant place too, why not.
I take many a photo of Dutch and Scottish families at various points up their peak, then start to make my way down. The slope is tricky to navigate down, and my shoes aren’t up to the task (or much else in their now-battered state). Surprisingly the descent is as difficult, if not more so. One’s muscles start to whine and ache on the frequent jolts down one rock to another. Take in the view, but beware: one mis-step and you could tumble down the verge. It’s 1344 metres down.
At times, I’m incongruously tempted to take a trip into the vertiginous forests and lochs below. I’ve always had a thrill of heights and not a fear, climbing trees like a fool, peering over the top edge of Peckham car park before they turned it into a godawful hipster bar. Those few seconds in the air, the thrill of flying all too briefly, would it be worth it…?
Near the foot of Nevis I start to make silly misjudgements of the terrain. One slide snaps the button holding up my shorts. With no free hands remaining as I hoist up my dignity, I struggle down further. One panorama gets me, and the ground gives in. I slide down onto the verge, knees taking the shock. I eventually reach the base with the trophy of a bloody knee and a mind electrified.
Some local philanthropist has built a fine pub at the foot of the mountain. At the Ben Nevis Inn I tend my weary legs and wipe up my wounds. Consolation comes in the form of Cairngorms Highland IPA, An Teallach beers, WiFi access and contact with my loved ones and, later, some fine Oban and Bunnahabhain whiskies. Fatigue, warmth and a deluded sense of pride coagulate into a decision to eat out, for once. I sup on chips and vegetarian haggis, as ambitious yet disappointing as it sounds. It encapsulates the day: novelty, fun, oscillating emotions and a degree of disappointment. But I didn’t just climb up for personal satisfaction.
In The Prince, Machiavelli writes about the kind of view you can only get from a mountain. That view represents the perspective of rulers, princes like those he appealed to. They look out at the extent of their power from up high. It’s isolating at the top, and the pleasure of primacy is easily lost in the vanity, scheming and inevitable power struggles that ensue. The air’s a little too rarefied to breathe. Those forests, seas and plains below may look majestic, and there is something thrilling about finding a promontory where the eye can take all of it in. But close to the soil, within the earshot of people’s conversations and stories, things begin to look more different. Richer, more sophisticated perhaps, more ambivalent too. It’s hard to state what they are. One has to work with one’s senses, with conversations and with one’s experiences. All that theory and abstraction, can it help?
For Machiavelli it can. The best situation is to synthesise theory and practice, to use the map to explore the territory.
‘For just as those who paint landscapes place themselves in a low position on the plain in order to consider the nature of the mountains and the heights, and place themselves high on top of mountains to study the plains, in like manner, to know the nature of the people well one must be a prince, and to know the nature of princes well, one must be of the people.’
I’m drunk and tired, and the last in the pub to leave. My aching legs and cut knees have stalled any further exploration, and I find a place to wild camp near the foot of Ben Nevis. After climbing this peak, over the next few days I start to slow down. Writing becomes more difficult and less interesting. Perhaps there was something in the air up there. Perhaps lived experience, new experiences, are even more intriguing and worth the gamble than anything else I’ve encountered.